Monday, March 22, 2010

White Girl in the Big House

Have I told you that my new area of obsession is Black and Irish relations in the early days of our nation's history? I recently wrote about the influence of Black music on Irish musicians here on the Meltingpot, and that's what got me back on this issue.

Believe it or not, I was once commissioned to write a play about a Black tap dancer who travels to Ireland to discover his roots. Needless to say, the play was never produced, but I have the early drafts somewhere. Anywho, since then, I've always been curious about the shared history of American Blacks and the Irish. Other people are interested too, like the Yale research project on the subject known as Tangled Roots, which seeks to explore the shared history of Africans and Irish in early American history.

So, you can imagine my utter delight this weekend, while sitting in on a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book to hear about a new book called, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. The book is about race, and family and love, and betrayal, but it is mostly told from the perspective of an orphaned Irish child who is made to work in the "big house" with the slaves of the family. Very quickly the little girl becomes part of the Black family who works in the big house and as you can imagine, drama ensues. From the website:

"In 1790, Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan with no memory of her past, arrives on a tobacco plantation where she is put to work as an indentured servant with the kitchen house slaves. Though she becomes deeply bonded to her new family, Lavinia is also slowly accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. As time passes she finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds and when loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare and lives are at risk. The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail."

I started the book on the train yesterday and haven't been able to put it down. I am thrilled to hear a story such as this, which offers yet another perspective on slavery and the relationships between White and Black before words like racism and civil rights and prejudice where part of the lexicon.

Did you know that poor Irish indentured servants worked alongside Black slaves? Did you know before they were slaves, Africans too were indentured servants? Not slaves. Of course most of you knew that, but a lot of Americans don't. Do you think it would change things if more people knew our true racial history in this country? Did you know that many White women, upon winning their freedom from servitude, which included being awarded a parcel of land to farm, would marry Black men because Black men were forbidden from owning land, which meant the women maintained ownership of her property? If she married a White man, he automatically took ownership of the land. Fascinating isn't it?

I'll let you know how the book turns out. Or maybe you might want to go out and buy a copy for yourself. If so, try buying from an indie bookstore in your neighborhood.

Let me know what you decide.



Amy said...

I think there's so much of America's "melting pot" (if you could call it that...) history that people don't know that could radically change their perceptions and views of today's society and social climate...for example, Sojourner's Truth first language was Dutch. Many U.S. slave owners in the past were non-Anglo and non-English speaking (Dutch, German, French, Spanish).

Unlikely interracial relationships formed among the urban working class as well. For example, in NYC's Chinatown in the 1800s, there were many Chinese bachelors who formed relationships and common law marriages with Irish women who often worked as domestics...a Chinatown historian discovered this unusual phenomenon when going through census data from that time period.

Anyway, I think it's great that you're posting on the overlapping histories/relationships of Black and Irish's quite fascinating.

LT said...

Thanks for the great meltingpot tidbits. The Chinese Irish relationships sound very interesting. I will def. investigate.

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog while I was doing some digging into Black-Irish relations. I have been doing genealogy on my Irish family, and just came into possession of a portrait of a woman from somewhere in my family. The interesting part is, I looked up the author in a census and found out he was black! This was very surprising and exciting because it seemed to be a very informal portrait-not signed-that might have taken place among friends or in return for a favor. I am still trying to figure out how that could have come to pass, and how they might have even gotten to know each other, but the search is extremely intriguing.